Sam Neill was recently putting his two daughters to bed at
the end of a day's shooting in Buenos Aires when he noticed the elder one crying. 'I wish we could
be at home for a change,' she said to her father. The confusion is
understandable. But, as he ruefully admits, he could have responded, 'Which
home?' Neill's current film, Death In
Brunswick, is set in Australia; this will shortly be followed by a
co-starring role with William Hurt in the Wim Wenders film Until The End Of The World, an epic involving a chase around the
world that was filmed in eleven different countries (it was only the
constraints of the budget that reduced the number from seventeen). And this is
only the latest stage in a life that has been spent largely in transit.
Neill was born in Belfast,
the son of a New Zealand
army officer. When he was eight. his family moved back to New
Zealand where Neill completed his education.
After finishing his degree he began to act and make documentaries. A film
career in New Zealand seemed improbable, to say the least, but in 1977 he got
the lead role in Roger Donaldson's Sleeping
Dogs, the first New Zealand feature film for fifteen years and the first
ever to open in the United States.
It was clear that if Neill wanted to work he would have to
go abroad, and in 1979 he won the romantic lead in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, one of the films
that spearheaded the great Australian cinematic revival. Neill's performance
attracted attention and ever since, he has, in his own words, 'followed the
work'. He played the title role in Reilly:
Ace Of Spies for British TV and Kane in the American TV mini-series, Kane And Abel, adapted from the novel by
Jeffrey Archer. When I recently met him in London
he was just passing through, having spent the last three years making five
films in a row. Now 40, he was a relaxed figure, casually dressed in a leather
jacket, strikingly handsome and looking rather like a world-weary Kevin Costner.
I observed that he seems able to float between highly commercial work like The Hunt For Red October and the
forthcoming Memoirs Of An Invisible Man
(in which he co-stars with Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah)
and quirkier work like Death In Brunswick
and Until The End Of The World. 'I
think I prefer the quirky individual work, but each kind fuels the other.' His
leading-man looks always have a suggestion of something strange behind them. He
recalled the making of A Cry In The Dark
in which, starring opposite Meryl Streep, he played the one who cracked up. 'I
remember the excitement of going into work every day to see what she would do.'
Neill is now based in Los Angeles
with his family, and he is the first actor I have met to praise the city, not
just for its proximity to the film industry but for its innovative modern
architecture. But where is he going to end up? 'I'm not sure if I like that
expression, but New Zealand will always be my home.
There just isn't any work there.'